"They've got a jail here that makes Alcatraz look like Disneyland."
Plenty of prisons
simply content themselves with confining people, but some go the extra mile and actually try to break them. This sort of prison is an absolute hellhole - between the lack of food and proper clothing, the absence of light or sanitation, the sadistic guards, and the violently insane fellow prisoners, they hardly need
the nasty looking torture equipment they probably have scattered around. Sometimes, they won't bother with things like individual cells - prisoners will just be lowered into a big pit and left to fight each other for whatever scraps are thrown down. Expect the inmates to be treated like animals, and expect most of them to act
like animals as well. Indeed, being thrown to the prisoners might be used as a punishment just like being thrown to the lions, and jailers in such places occasionally suffer Karmic Death
that way too.
Story-wise, this sort of prison will often get heroes thrown into it, so that the hero can demonstrate their inherent hero-ness by refusing to be defeated by the prison. It may also serve to toughen them up
for the next part of the plot (since pretty much any story with a prison as a setting involves a Great Escape
as the plot). Other times, it will just serve as a Fate Worse Than Death
which the hero must fight to avoid.
A prison like this will often also be The Alcatraz
or a Tailor-Made Prison
, but those are defined by the difficulty of escape rather than the conditions - some of those prisons can actually be quite nice
. Related to Bedlam House
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Anime and Manga
- In Kangoku Gakuen the main characters have to spend one month in their highschool's prison for getting caught peeping in the girls' bath. The prison cells are very dirty, the boys have to do a lot of hard labor and their prison guards, members of the school's student council punish them liberally. Despite all this Kiyoshi notes that it's only taken a few days for them to get used to their prison life. They still take their classes, though through a monitor, and they get the same food as the rest of the students. Unfortunately, it goes back to being a Hellhole Prison after Kiyoshi's breakout as the student council are more strict on the boys and manipulate the boys into getting themselves in trouble so they can be expelled from school.
- All of the greatest criminals in One Piece go to Impel Down, a prison with each level having a different torture, lower numbered levels are those with less dangerous (to the government) criminals. The entire prison is controlled by a warden with the power of poison (one of the few characters who's handed the main character his ass), Badass Normal staff (including one Vice-Warden) and devilish beasts and guards. There is also a literal evocation of hell, down to the horns on most of the higher staff.
- Deadman Wonderland, through and through.
- Such a prison plays a major role in the first cycle of the French comic Balade au bout du monde. It's a medieval prison in the 20th century.
- Peña Duro, the prison where Batman foe Bane was born and raised.
- Midnight Express. Never, ever, ever try to smuggle hash out of Turkey!
- The House of Particular Individuals in Idiocracy. Filthy and overcrowded conditions, inmates are fed slop poured in from a funnel, and large, overweight prisoners establish dominance by sitting on smaller ones. Fortunately for the hero, the guards are so stupid you can escape simply by telling them you're supposed to be getting out of prison.
- The prison in the 2008 film Hunger which is based upon the 1981 Irish hunger strike. The IRA prisoners, refusing to conform to the prison's rules, are forced to live naked, routinely beaten, forcibly searched in all orifices, and beaten some more.
- "The Pit", the foreign prison in which Talia was born and raised in The Dark Knight Rises is a literal hole: a giant pit into which prisoners thrown. What makes it especially terrible is that there aren't even any guards; the prisoners can walk out any time they want...if they can make it to the rim of the pit. But in all of known history, only one has ever managed it.
Bane: There's a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth... Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy... So simple... And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.
- The Chronicles of Riddick has Crematoria, where the (Russian) guards occasionally release mutant dogs to eat anyone who's not quick enough to get out of the way. Oh, and the guards don't bother keeping the prisoners in line. They're up there in their rooms above the prison and never come down. See also the video game example below.
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has an infamous sequence where Blondie and Tuco are captured by Union soldiers and brought to a particularly nasty camp. What follows soon after is the brutal torture of Tuco by Angel Eyes and another soldier- okay, in this case they want information, but he openly admits that "the talking won't save you" (in other words, he tortured Tuco even further after he'd told him everything). To make matters worse, it's heavily implied that this is a normal occurrence in the camp, and most of the prisoners probably didn't even have information worth torturing them for. Fortunately, Blondie gets out of there quickly before anything can happen to him.
- To make it even more depressing, they're actually going entirely against regulations- the commandant actually does want the prisoners treated fairly, but he's powerless to stop them because he's dying from gangrene.
- Alien 3 gets in on the act with Fiorina-161, a/k/a 'Fury', a maximum-security prison world with no weapons of any kind because without a functioning starship escape is impossible anyway. The wardens as a result are nearly powerless against the apocalyptic cult that has gained control over the population, to say nothing of the Xenomorph that hitchhiked aboard the escape pod from the Sulaco.
Ripley: This is a maximum security prison, and you have no weapons of any kind???
Andrews: We have some carving knives in the abattoir, a few more in the mess hall. Some fire axes scattered about the place - nothing terribly formidable.
Ripley: That's all?
Andrews: We're on the honor system.
Ripley: Then we're fucked!
- In Death Race and Death Race 2, Terminal Island is just a regular supermax. Sure, there's Death Race, but prisoners volunteer for that (well, in most cases). Kalahari Prison in Death Race 3 however, is in the middle of the desert and has stone age conditions. The heat alone is maddening, but the guards keep hyenas as guard dogs, and prisoners work backbreaking hours in a mine.
- Furnace Prison from Escape from Furnace.
- Azkaban in Harry Potter qualifies — it doesn't sound as scary on a physical level, but it's described as being emotional torture because of the Dementors being the guards. One of the early signs that the Ministry of Magic isn't exactly on the good guy's side.
- To be specific, the emotional torture is either being forced to relive your worst memories whenever the Dementors float by your cell, or feeling like you'll never be happy again. Either way, most prisoners go insane.
- Word of God says conditions improve post-series after the Dementors are removed.
- The Ministry of Love from 1984 is very much one of these. And that's before we get to see what goes on in Room 101.
- The Chateau d'If, where Edmond Dantes is thrown following his betrayal by Fernand Mondego in The Count of Monte Cristo.
- Ysanne Isard's Lusankya has a facility to torture and brainwash people into Manchurian Agents, but there's also a prison where she sends them to recover along with all her other prisoners. It's relatively mild as evil prisons go, but they get rockbreaking duty and the guards regularly shoot new prisoners to cow them. They shoot on stun settings, yes, but that's not exactly pleasant.
- Worth noting is that Michael Stackpole named it the Lusankya in order to evoke memories of the real-world Lubyanka prison.
- The Mexican prison that John Grady and his friend are thrown into in All The Pretty Horses.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga short story "Borders of Infinity", the Dagoola IV prison camp is designed to be as bad as possible without violating galactic law on the treatment of prisoners of war. Due to egregious Loophole Abuse, the camp has continuous illumination, riots twice daily over food distribution, frequent Prison Rape and non-existant medical care.
- In Dune, the entire planet of Salusa Secundus functions as a hell-world prison for Emperor Shaddam IV; and it is described as having a 60% mortality rate for new prisoners. The emperor recruits those tough enough to survive it for his uber-elite and highly feared Sardaukar troops. The Fremen also view Arrakis like this on a more religious level — "God created Arrakis to train the Faithful" — and conditions are similarly harsh.
- Honor Harrington has the prison planet Hades, more commonly called "Hell." The climate is dreadful, the native life inedible (but the local fauna haven't figured out that they can't eat people) and if the guards decide that one of the small prison camps spread around on its surface is getting too uppity, they just stop delivering food to it.
- The hulks in the Matthew Hawkwood novel Rapscallion. Truth in Television.
- The titular prison in Incarceron. Making it worse is that it's sentient and fully aware of what it's doing to people.
- In It Can't Happen Here, the concentration camps created by the Windrip regime are hellish. Trianon was a filthy, crowded, miserable prison where guards tortured detainee with whippings and castor oil force-feeding.
- In his biography Dwayne "Dog" Chapman talks about the Mexican prison he, his partner, and his son were thrown into while on the hunt for convicted millionaire rapist Andrew Luster. Apart from fearing that they would be killed as gringos in a latino prison, the guards made things all the worse by throwing buckets of sugar water into each of their cells in order to attract an already insanely huge swarm of flies.
- In Shogun, John Blackthorne ends up in such a prison. The prison is described as a room, where dozens of men are all stripped to their undergarments. The floor is covered in filth, the air is hot with a terrible stench and the men themselves only have enough room to stand in very close proximity, with those who lie down being too sick and near death to stand. Sick men die during the night and the rest are willing to kill each other for a bowl of rice. Its enough to drive Blackthorne into a Heroic BSOD.
Live Action Television
- Jack Bauer spent several years in a hellish Chinese prison between seasons of 24.
- "The Attic" on Dollhouse.
- The titular prison in the show Oz, despite a good part of it being an experiment to make it less of an hellhole.
- Fox River State Penitentiary in Prison Break. Bizarrely, however, this prison has access to things like chem labs — which kind of makes a person wonder why riots aren't a hell of a lot worse than they already are.
- The Penitenciaría Federal de Sona in the third season fits the trope even better. Guards only venture inside the prison in the event of major riots or to collect dead bodies.
- Stargate SG-1 had an episode where SG-1 found themselves in one. Taken to its logical extreme as its purpose is to simulate hell itself.
- Tom Paris and Harry Kim find themselves unrightfully thrown into one of these in Star Trek: Voyager's "The Chute" and almost kill each other during their time in there.
- Another episode had Tuvok tell a prisoner about the completely intolerable conditions of an alien prison. He was lying his ass off.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode had an interesting example. O'brien was thrown into a simulated prison cell for what he thought was twenty years. While O'brien was never "physically" harmed, the treatment inside the simulation was between "horrific" and "execution would of been kinder". The floor was sand, the rations were handed out irregularly, a painful laser cleans the room, O'brien was beaten by the guard, and by one throw away line we know there wasn't any "bathrooms facilities". It was no wonder the man was barely clinging to sanity.
- The top-secret UNIT prison that Toshiko was thrown into for life in her origin-story flashback in Torchwood.
- Walker, Texas Ranger infiltrated one of these, where the prisoners were being used in some kind of Fight Club-esque tournament in which the other guards bet on who'd win, all run by the Dirty Cop warden.
- JAG: The Chinese military prison in "The Prisoner".
- The Magitek-style setting of Rym (http://www.fur.com/~ollie/world6.html) shows a cluster of prisons called Fear, Agony and Grief. These are "prisons used by the Spiral [alien necromancers] to gather information on the suffering of mortal beings... staffed by the more intellectual Spiral priests, who go to great lengths to arrange for proper conditions, acquisition of prisoner groups, and the orchestration of the hideous little 'plays'..."
- Parody RPG Hol (short for Human Occupied Landfill) exists as a combination Penal Colony and Landfill Beyond the Stars, resulting in a major Crapsack World. It has one of the highest body counts since Paranoia, and few players survive even their first encounter.
- Scion has Durance Vile, a dimension that embodies this trope by taking on the features of the most notorious prisons in history. The sample adventure in the core book God deals with taking the avatars of the Titans there to be imprisoned as part of a plan to end the war between them and the Gods. Unfortunately, said Titans end up breaking free of their chains.
- The Lottery of Life story in Lost Odyssey is about a juvenile prison like this, in a country where the people have been brought up for generations to believe that attempting to rehabilitate even petty criminals is pointless — once you commit any kind of crime, you're officially considered subhuman for the rest of your life. When the prison gets set on fire, the guards order Kaim (who's been hired as extra security during a rebellion) to abandon the prison, leaving the 'losers' inside to burn to death. He refuses to go along with it, knocks another guard unconsious and steals their keys, letting the most rebellious prisoner free first and giving him the keys, but not before telling him that they should return the following morning since if they tried escaping in their weakened condition, they'd only end up being captured and executed as a punishment as well as proving everyone that they're the untrustworthy losers that everyone thinks they are. After the prisoners prove themselves by saving numerous people in the fire and giving their lives for them, a more organized rebellion takes root in a few years and the most rebellious prisoner ends up becoming the country's new leader.
- Kaim himself also ends up in one of these in the story They Live In Shells, where the titular "shells" are basically isolated cells without any windows or bars, making them pitch black from the inside. Being immortal, Kaim naturally makes out eventually. Most of his cellmates aren't as lucky, with the luckiest of them ending up burning out his retinas with sunlight after finally getting out of the complete darkness.
- Arkham City. It's a walled-off section of Gotham City where the prisoners are just dumped into. Because of the collapse of both the original Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary, both criminals and psychotic lunatics are thrown into it, no matter how minor their crimes may be (or simply if they protest too loudly or learn too much). The food drop-offs are scarce, the guards are abusive, and if you don't align yourself with a gang, you're probably going to be killed. Not that your chances of survival will improve much even then, considering the supervillains who run said gangs, to say nothing of Arkham City actually being built for the purpose of gathering all of Gotham's criminals in one place so that they can be exterminated en masse; the plot to secretly supply the gangs with weapons so that a mass break-out can be fabricated and used as an excuse for said massacre, along with simply not caring for the lives of those already doomed to slaughter, is what justifies the incredibly poor living conditions there.
- The Dungeon maps in Warcraft 3 feature charming little things like cages, torture racks and iron maidens. Not to mention the skeletons that are still chained up on the wall...
- Tixa in Jagged Alliance 2 is a torture facility for political prisoners. Looking around will find blood covered shackles the basement is even worse.
- Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Prisoners are kept in metal sarcophagi until the surgery block is ready to turn them into Stalkers.
- That's the shiny new Combine-built wing; the original prison looks like it used to be (and depending on what the guards do for recreation, maybe still is) a more standard example of this trope.
- In Bioshock 2, we have Persephone Penal Colony, a place built by the opportunistic businessman Augustus Sinclair to house those who speak out against the hypocritical city leader Andrew Ryan. Suicide, violence and suffering were common, and many prisoners endured having to serve as test subjects.
- Vorkuta in Call of Duty: Black Ops, where a very bloody uprising leads to hundreds (if not thousands) of Prisoner and Guard deaths, and the lone escape of Cpt. Alex Mason.
- In Modern Warfare 2, TF 141 breaks into one to kidnap the prisoner inside for information on Makarov. The entire gulag exists to punish one guy: Captain Price.
- In Mass Effect 2, Zaeed Massani states that Batarian prisons are hellholes where the only choices are "bash head open against wall" or "kill everyone between yourself and exit". The Purgatory prison ship also qualifies, given the inmates' poor living conditions and abuse from guards. It's bad enough that it's hard not to feel bad for the prisoners, even though killing 20 people and destroying a habitat is apparently at the low end of the crimes that can land you there.
- The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay takes place in the eponymous maximum security prison, housing the most notorious criminals in the galaxy. It's divided into three levels, each one more hellish than the previous: the first level is pretty much a "normal" prison (although madness-inducingly horrible and violent), the second is a series of tunnels infested by murderous alien bugs where the prisoners must mine for precious ores under terrible conditions, and in the last (saved only for the very worst of the worst) the prisoners are simply kept frozen in cryostasis for the rest of their lives (except for a two minutes long exercise period per day in an extremely well secured area).
- Connor gets thrown into one in Assassin's Creed III, complete with asshole guards and the occasional tortured scream, and an architecture that's somewhat reminescent of The Dark Knight Rises' pit. The Prison Ship HMS Jersey (see Real Life section) also plays a minor part in the game.
- The Mortal Kombat franchise has a lot of arenas that are meant to serve as dungeons or prisons, and they all qualify, many of them also serving as places where torture and executions are carried out. The Dead Pool and the Evil Tower are both used like this in Mortal Kombat 9 (the first one used to hold Sonya after she's taken prisoner and the second used to hold Kitana, with Sheeva acting as a jailer in both cases; Sonya sarcastically asks her, "What is it with you Shokan and underground cesspools?"). Goro's Lair is also used for this purpose, although, as its name implies, it's also Goro's lair. (He's not always home, but it's always where a Boss Battle involving him is fought.) The worst is likely the Dark Prison from Mortal Kombat: Deception. The eight prisoners in the cells are randomly selected from the nonplayable characters in the Konquest Mode (it changes each time the arena appears) and if an opponent is knocked against a cell door, the occupant grabs and hold him or her for a chance for a free hit or combo. It also has a nasty Stage Fatality, with a spiked wall compressor that activates when the loser is knocked into it.
- The Chronicles of Taras: Red Dementia is set in a girl's prison camp in the middle of a pitch-black, sub-freezing desert where the Guards unleash mutated creatures called Rakes on the unwitting teenagers.
- Subverted in Futurama with the Hal Institute for Criminally Insane Robots. It's not so bad for robots - it even manages to cure them - but when Fry spends time there in Insane In The Mainframe he completely loses his mind.
- In Justice League Mister Miracle spent his childhood in such a place called the X Pit which he somehow escaped.
- Cape Doom in The Legend of Tarzan. Described by Colonel Staquait as a "Fate Worse Than Death".
- In the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, Venger had the Prison of Agony, which was built over the crater of an active volcano. One of the big reasons it was escape-proof is because the winch to operate the drawbridge that was the only way in or out was so heavy, only the giant who guarded it could turn it. The giant actually wasn't a bad guy; Venger was blackmailing him by threatening to destroy his homeworld. (Apparently, he was in the same situation as the heroes. Naturally, when Venger sent the heroes to this awful place, the giant proved a valuable ally when they launched a mass-jailbreak and destroyed the whole facility.
- The Confederate Andersonville POW camp during the U.S. Civil War. The reason it was so bad is because its commandant was an Obstructive Bureaucrat and the Confederacy as a whole was running out of supplies for its own soldiers, never mind the other side's prisoners.
- The Union equivalent was Camp Douglas.
- To give an idea of how bad the treatment of prisoners was at Andersonville, the response of General Sherman and his troops upon seeing the condition of surviving PO Ws was to burn the south.
- Nazi prisons and concentration camps, as one can very well imagine, are among the most notorious examples of this trope.
- British prisons before Sir Robert Peel. You used to have to pay for everything and could often bribe the Gaolers to make life harder for other prisoners. Part of this was due to the fact that these payments (both official and bribes) where the only money the Gaolers made.
- London was infamous for Newgate until the end of the 19th century (though it was used to hold only the very worst prisoners for the 50 years). Numerous references to it used the phrase (or something very near to) "Hell on Earth" to describe it, Rioters on numerous occasions made it a point to burn the place down first off, and even official reports criticized it for harsh prisoner treatment and malnourishment. It was eventually demolished and replaced with the Central Criminal Court—aka the Old Bailey—in 1902.
- The Stanford Prison Experiment appeared to demonstrate that any prison has the potential to turn into this: guards, if not held accountable for their actions, become abusive; prisoners, lacking other means of fighting back, become passive-aggressive and prone to riots. The results of the study are still controversial among researchers, however; with claims that flaws in the construction of the project encouraged much worse results than would be achived in a real-world setting.
- Natan Sharansky says that when he was confined by the KGB , they were deliberately trying to wear down his spirit with endless amounts of Cold-Blooded Torture.
- They didn't actually enjoy their work and used methods which showed little of the six fingered man type "craftsmanship" but much of brutality. Nor did they want information. All they wanted was for him to shut up and stop being embarrassing to the regime.
- Soviet-era prisons, particularly the gulags, are described as this by many former inmates; most famously by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.
- Of course, descriptions of prisons given by Solzhenitsyn from personal experience in The Gulag Archipelago (rather than from latrine rumors) are nowhere near.
- Cuba's prisons also count as they treat prisoners as punching bags. It was so terrible that the prisoners transferred to Atlanta prison did everything they can not to be sent back into Cuba.
- North Korea's kwan-li-so system of labour camps and political prisons deserves a mention of its own. North Korean defectors have reported witnessing forced abortions, infanticide, several instances of rape, public executions, and testing of biological weapons on prisoners. Inmates face Cold-Blooded Torture as a daily fact of life simply For the Evulz.
- Supermaxes. Just the solitary confinement can break prisoners.
- Back in the 19th century isolation was the standard means of imprisonment for all inmates outside work camps. Grand majority of the released prisoners were hopelessly demented.
- This is actually were we get the word 'penitentiary.' The prevailing theory was that the best way to reform criminals was to keep them solitary and penitent so they could properly reflect on their crimes. Beyond solitary confinement, many early penitentiaries required complete silence from prisoners at all times—a policy that was strictly enforced.
- Whether or not the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is one of this is a hotly contested issue.
- Likewise, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's "Tent City". It gets pretty hot outside in the Arizona summer...
- Arpaio has taken great pains to ensure that all Maricopa County detention facilities are this. Federal courts have ruled on at least two occasions that the conditions of MCSO jails violate inmates' civil rights. Of special note is the Madison Street Jail, which is advertised as the toughest jail in the United States.
- While prison in any country in the Middle East and North Africa is no picnic, the Tazmamart prison camp in Morocco was noted as the most hellish prison in the world — at a time when the Soviet Gulags were still active. It was shut down in 1991.
- Many if not most French prisons have gradually become these due to a frozen prison budget, lack of funding for new prisons, and a burgeoning prison population. Overcrowding is commonplace, there is a violent and endemic gang culture, and (hotly denied by both wardens and the government) much abuse of prisoners (by guards and fellow prisoners, inclusive of sex slavery). This goes a long way towards explaining the disdain and/or hostility many ordinary people have for the police, especially minorities.
- Lecumberri Black Palace was this in 20th century Mexico.
- In medieval times many castles tend to have horrible dungeons underneath them. Some prisons are just pits where the prisoners are dumped to, with no way out, or any source of light.
- There were also the oubliette, which was as close to a literal example of this trope as possible. A tiny hole in the ground, with the only light coming from a barred window in the ceiling, where the prisoners were handed their food (when the guards felt like it). Not only was the space cramped and filthy beyond measure, there was also no place for the human waste to drain off.
- Eastern State Penitentiary. As stated by one of its visitors, Charles Dickens, "the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain" there were "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."
- The Abu Salim prison in Libya during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. At one point, the prisoners rose up, demanding a decent standard of living. In response, the administrators marched out 1,270 inmates into the courtyard, where they were all shot and killed.
- During The American Revolution, the Prison Ship HMS Jersey earned the nickname "Hell" for its inhumane conditions and high death rate.
- While technically not a prison, it was meant to imprison them to keep them from rioting: The Slave Ships. Don't look into this unless you have a strong stomach. The journeys were long and up to hundreds of captured African men, women and children were packed into the bottom of the ship, all chained together, in uncomfortable all-fours positions. There was no place for them to use the restroom, if you can call it that since there weren't any, so they just had to let their waste out on the floors. They had to eat and sleep in that too if it didn't seep through the cracks between the wooden planks quick enough. Unsurprisingly, illness and death was abundant due to this, and dead Africans were simply tossed overboard, though the other Africans were sometimes allowed on deck to mourn. And if rations were running low, then they tied rocks to the weak, ill or old and tossed them overboard. And if the ride got too rocky, or if it got really cold, then they'd be vomiting on each other.